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Sarah and Lisa always enjoyed hanging out at the mall. But one Saturday, after shopping for jeans, Sarah pulled a new shirt out of her bag. Lisa didn’t remember seeing her buy it.

“I didn’t,” Sarah told her. “I lifted it.”

Lisa was upset and puzzled. Stealing didn’t seem like something Sarah would do.

Who Shoplifts?

There’s no typical shoplifter — people who steal from stores can be any age, race, gender, and social and economic background. Shoplifters generally fall into two categories:

  1. Professional shoplifters. These people usually take expensive items, like clothing and jewelry, that they can resell easily.
  2. Amateur or casual shoplifters. Most shoplifters are in this group. Casual shoplifters don’t usually go into a store with the intention of stealing — they simply see the opportunity to take something and do.

Many people assume that shoplifters have a mental disorder or that they must really need the items they are stealing in order to survive. But the truth is that’s not why most people steal. Very few people have kleptomania (a compulsive urge to steal), and many people who steal have enough money to pay for the items.

Someone might shoplift for many reasons. But there’s no way around the fact that shoplifting is stealing — and in most places there are heavy penalties for it, including being arrested and possibly charged with a crime.

Some people may not realize how serious shoplifting can be. What might seem like an innocent prank can actually affect a person’s future, including the chances of getting a job. Lots of teens find out the hard way that stores take shoplifting very seriously.

Why Do Some Teens Shoplift?

Peer pressure is one reason why people shoplift. Some might do it to seem cool or daring. Some do it because their friends shoplift and they want to be part of the group. Some people shoplift because they want things their classmates have but can’t afford them.

Some people shoplift to see what they can get away with. They may do it as a way to challenge authority or be nonconformist. Or they may get a rush out of doing something risky that has the potential to get them in serious trouble. Others do it as a way to get attention from parents or friends.

A few people shoplift because they see it as a way of getting back at a store they don’t like or a company whose values they question. But shoplifting rarely affects the store as much as it affects the people who shop there. Some stores may add the cost of shoplifting into their prices. So the people shopping there are the ones paying extra, not the stores.

What Happens to Shoplifters?

Getting caught shoplifting can be a lot more serious than people may think. Some of the things that can happen to shoplifters are:

  • They may be arrested and paraded through a store in handcuffs.
  • They may face charges for theft.
  • They may be banned from stores or malls.
  • People who have been arrested for shoplifting — especially if it’s more than once — may end up with a criminal record. This can make it harder to get a job, get into college, or do the other things they want.

People don’t have to get caught for shoplifting to affect their lives. Some people may feel guilty or ashamed of what they’ve done. It can cost the person self-respect or the respect of others. Sometimes people lose friends who decide they don’t want to be close to someone who doesn’t have the same values.

Help for a Friend Who Shoplifts

It can be hard to raise tough topics like shoplifting with a friend. Try saying that you’re concerned, and that you don’t want your friend to get hurt in the long run. Lots of people simply don’t know how serious the penalties for shoplifting can be.

Sometimes friends are looking for other people to give them feedback about their choices. Just talking about it may help your friend think more about what he or she is doing and why.

If you think it’s wrong to take things without paying for them, say so. You can state your own point of view without giving your friend a lecture, putting him or her down, or being judgmental. Simply say what you believe, such as: “I don’t think it’s right to take things without paying.” Sometimes it takes courage to speak up like this. But saying nothing can send a friend the message that you’re OK with the behavior.

When you can’t talk to your friend yourself or you’re worried that the problem is too big to tackle alone, discuss it with a counselor or other trusted adult.

If a friend tries to get you to shoplift — or to distract someone so he or she can shoplift — you can say no. It takes courage, especially if the other person tries to put you down if you don’t go along. But sometimes, we have to be our own best friends and put our needs first.

If your friend won’t stop shoplifting, avoid shopping together. If your friend is caught, you may be under suspicion, too. You could even suffer some of the same consequences (like being banned from a store).

If you’ve shoplifted before, think about how you felt afterward. Would you want the people you respect most to know? Part of growing up is becoming aware of how we feel, what we think, and what values are important to us. Learning from past mistakes is a way to do that. It’s never too late to change things we don’t like, or to act in ways that help us to be the person we want to be.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2013